14

Prologue

Blacklight Marches—2238

Power flowed through him, raw plasma pouring down through the probic vent directly into his body. No need to eat or drink. Much more efficient to recharge directly, to be powered from the same source that fueled their ships. For most it was a simple painless process, but a few, an unlucky few could feel it. An almost-pain that screamed through your skull, bursting in your brain like a roaring madness, a chaotic maelstrom of color and sound that drowned out all other senses. He had taught himself long ago to treat the experience like a test, a battle to maintain consciousness. A battle he would win every time, as he had won all others, as he must win. His name was General Strag, Strag the Victorious, Strag the Deathwalker.

In younger days he had survived six months behind enemy lines evading near constant pursuit. His opponent had been cunning and resourceful, chasing him to the very edge of the galaxy and beyond. At last in the intergalactic wastes where light itself faded and died, his pursuers lost heart and withdrew. His was a life of constant never-ending vigilance, where even recharging was a painful struggle and he welcomed it. His wingman had lost concentration for a moment, been unable to maintain the necessary strength and been destroyed. Slowly he became aware of a voice penetrating the miasma of sound, color, and memories that accompanied the recharging. With great deliberation he reached back to where he knew the switch must be and deactivated the feeder. Even after all these years the sudden jolt left him disoriented. He glanced up blearily at the short squat figure of his second-in-command.

"Report, Commander Tiegh," he ordered.

"Sorry to interrupt you, General."

"Never be sorry," he barked as he rose to his feet. "It is a sign of weakness."

"Sir," Commander Tiegh agreed in the non-committal universal tone of subordinates. "Scanners detect enemy force on a parallel course, unknown size or composition. Jammers are interfering with our scans. Commander Stor has dispatched a squadron of scouts."

"Understood," replied the General exiting his quarters. Soldiers parted before the General as he barreled through the corridors with the Commander following a respectful step behind.

"General in the War Room," a Lieutenant announced. The General strode past him and took in the purple tint, the dozens of armor-clad soldiers standing at attention before their control consoles.

"As you were," he barked coming to a parade rest in the center of the War Room with his baton clutched behind his back. "Have you burnt through the jamming signal yet?" he asked.

"No sir," came the reply. "They are rotating frequencies."

"Very well. Order the fleet to Battle Status Two and contact the scout squadron."

"Yes sir," Commander Tiegh replied immediately. He took his position at one of the consoles. "Audio link established, sir."

"This is General Strag. Report status."

"Lieutenant Stenx, sir." The transmission crackled. "Approaching visual range now. Dropping to sublight in five…four…three…two…one..."

"Status Lieutenant," Strag barked.

"Enemy sighting confirmed sir. Eight…correction nine Rutan vessels," Lieutenant Stenx responded.

"Switch to visual," ordered the General. "Show me my enemy." A holo-projection materialized in the center of the room showing a grainy image from the scout ship's recorders. General Strag studied the imaged, noting the positioning of the nine dim orange vessels, almost like fireballs.

"What are the Rutans doing this far from the core?" asked Commander Tiegh.

"Their purpose is likely the same as our own, preparation for an offensive." Strag frowned thoughtfully. "Magnify image, left quadrant." The projection focused on one of the vessels in the middle of the formation. It seemed even dimmer than the others. Commander Tiegh stepped forward to get a closer look. Something seemed out of place.

"Is it venting atmosphere?" Commander Tiegh asked.

"So it appears," General Strag replied.

"Battle damage?" Commander Tiegh asked, but he sounded as unconvinced as Strag appeared to be.

"Has the 9th Battle Fleet laid claim to any glory I am not aware of?"

"No sir. If they had any engagements, he would have informed me," the Commander replied. "In our last conversation, Commander Staal indicated that his soldiers were growing impatient."

"The waiting before battle must be endured with dignity," the General said gravely. Impatience had led many capable Sontarans to a useless death.

"Of course sir." Commander Tiegh agreed. "But if not battle damage, then what?" He indicated the wounded vessel.

"We are not the only enemy they could have fought."

"We are the only enemy that could hurt them in this part of the galaxy."

"True." General Strag agreed. "Most likely they are attempting to draw us into a trap."

"Orders, sir?"

"We engage them." General Strag smiled savagely. "Plot an intercept vector, standard assault deployment. I want Stentor's Vengeance to lead."

"Commander Stor will be honored," Tiegh said. Strag waved the comment aside.

"Divert as much power as possible to the scanners. If this is a trap, then it is likely the jamming signal is hiding the teeth. See to it personally Commander Tiegh."

"Sir!" Tiegh snapped a perfect salute and marched to the scanner controls. He restrained his anger, barely. He was second-in-command of a Battle Fleet. Fiddling with sensors was beneath a warrior of his stature. The other Commanders in the fleet were permitted to bloody themselves, but the old man seemed to take a perverse pleasure in holding him back. Strag the Deathwalker, the Ravager of Kinn-lai was well past his prime. He was the oldest Sontaran Tiegh had ever met. His beard was shock white and his face was wrinkled and scarred. Perhaps once he had been the hero who walked on the edge of death a hundred times, but now he was just an old soldier who liked the sound of his own voice.

Tiegh looked up from the scanner console towards the holo-projector displaying the tactical situation. Strag was barking orders, holding the fleet in near perfect battle order. It was a cautious formation, Tiegh noted, but that was to be expected. There was no glory in blundering into a trap. Speaking of which, there was something odd about the jamming signal. It didn't look like any Rutan signal he had ever seen. In fact, it didn't even look…

"Sir!" The transmission broke Tiegh's line of thought. "The Rutan's are changing course," Lieutenant Stenx reported, "and accelerating."

"Confirmed," one of the crew said. "New course takes them outside the Rim."

"Pursue them," the General ordered. "Prepare for maximum burn. Lieutenant Stenx, shadow them but do not engage. I want to know their destination." Strag frowned. He was lacking information, information his enemy possessed. That was a very dangerous state of affairs. "Commander Tiegh, have you broken through the Rutan jamming yet?"

"No sir," Tiegh replied continuing as he approached, "but I do not believe it is Rutan, sir."

"Not Rutan," General Strag repeated. "Is it originating from the Rutan Fleet?"

"I believe so, sir." Tiegh said. The General nodded and turned away. He walked over to the observation port and gazed out at the stars as they rushed by.

"You may have just won the battle for us, Commander Tiegh," he said at length. "Let those like Stor have the glory, but take the victory for yourself. When the time comes, that is what High Command will remember."

"Yes sir." So the old man had been trying to teach him a lesson. "Even at full burn it will take us two days to overtake them."

"By which time we will have passed beyond the Rim into the wastes. That is where their trap will be sprung."

"The damaged Rutan ship will not be able to maintain this speed indefinitely."

"If it is damaged," said the General.

"Why persist in the ruse, now that we are committed?"

"Because Commander, we may have mistaken the teeth for the bait."

Lieutenant Stenx could feel the beginnings of fatigue seeping into his limbs. He would need to recharge soon. His attack pod came equipped with an energy feeder, but he dared not take the risk. Not when he and his squad were so close to the enemy, trailing just on the edge of scanner range. So far the Rutans did not appear to have penetrated the cloaking field around his ships, but the 5th Fleet was only a half-day behind and soon battle would be joined.

They said the latest cloaking fields were impenetrable, even by Rutan scans, but Stenx was doubtful. R&D was constantly churning out new and better weapons guaranteed to turn the tide of war decisively in Sontaran favor. It was the grunts who inevitably learned just how quickly the status quo was restored. Entire civilizations had risen from barbaric tribes to spacefaring empires and fallen back again, while the Sontarans and the Rutans danced their fatal dance among the stars. Stenx was a student of ancient poets from before the war, before the arts had faded. Their language was antiquated and their subject matter often frivolous, but Stenx had the same admiration for a well-crafted poem, as he did a well-crafted attack. It was a passion the General was rumored to share, though Stenx would never dare test that rumor.

"This is Commander Tiegh," crackled his communicator. "Estimate we will be in position in 10 hours. Proceed on a reconnaissance run of the damaged vessel. Believed to be source of jamming signal. Determine the nature of the damage and report back. Are there any questions?"

"No sir," Stenx replied. A lieutenant never had any questions for a Commander, not if he wanted to remain a lieutenant. Stenx considered his orders. He had been inching his squadron closer and closer to the Rutans, maneuvering for position, but scout the damaged ship would take them into the heart of the Rutan Fleet, an untenable position for a handful of fighters. But duty was duty, and all must play their part in advancing the Great Sontaran Cause, he mused to himself as he prepared the approach vector.

Impressively, the cloaking field still seemed to be holding, even as the squadron flew in the midst of the enemy fleet. He couldn't see them of course, but he screen told him that the fighters had maintained formation. Above them loomed the massive fireball of a Rutan assault cruiser. Up close it was not fire, but rather a vast crystalline luminous orange. Stenx watched it warily as he passed. A Rutan cruiser could hold over a hundred fighters. He did not breath a sigh of relief when they passed the cruiser, because Sontarans did not sigh, least of all in relief. Ahead the damaged vessel rushed into view, dimmer and less orange. There was something not quite right about the image, a little fuzzy around the edges. Almost as if…

Suddenly the controls flickered. Stenx glanced at his screen. Power fluctuations throughout the squadron. More importantly, the cloaking field had wavered, if only for a brief moment, but it was enough. Space was rapidly alive with laser fire, and dozens Rutan fighters. It happened too quickly not to have been planed.

"Drop cloak," he ordered breaking comm silence. "Prepare to break out." They were surrounded by Rutan ships and fighters on all sides, caught in a perfectly crafted net. The Rutan commander had been expecting them, Stenx realized. His wingman exploded, dissected by two Rutan fighters. Stenx swerved and caught the second fighter in a burst of meson cannon fire. His squadron was being massacred and driven deeper into the Rutan formation, towards the supposedly damaged vessel. The jamming signal was increasing, interfering with his ships function. Power fluctuations were increasing, and the Rutans were taking advantage. This close to the damaged ship, the image of it was becoming increasingly fuzzy and shimmered, as if like the Rutans themselves the ship had managed to shapeshift and hide its true nature.

As they were pushed closer and closer to the ship, the Rutans pulled back forming a defensive sphere not allowing any Sontarans to escape. His squadron had dwindled down to three, but at this distance the false image began to fade. For a brief moment, Stenx could see the ship for what it truly was. A glimpse at the scanner readings confirmed it.

"Lieutenant Stenx reporting," he said pouring all his pod's remaining power into the transmission. "The vessel is not Rutan. It is Timelord! Repeat it is Timelord!"

A burst of anti-light emerged from the Timelord artifact and engulfed the remainder of the squadron. When the burst faded, there was no trace of Lieutenant Stenx and his fighter pods. It was as if they had never existed.

"…not…utan…is…imelord…repeat…Timelor…" The garbled transmission crackled and died. The War Room was silent.

"Timelord," Commander Tiegh said with as much awe as a Sontaran could express. "They have a Timelord weapon."

"Yes. There are still many remnants of the Last Great Time War waiting to be claimed," General Strag said.

"Such a weapon could end the war."

"We need to adjust the battle stratagem. The Timelord device must be captured or destroyed. All other concerns are secondary. The Rutans must not be permitted to possess such power."

"We will not fail, sir."

"We must not fail Commander. The Cause may lie in our hands. Prepare for maximum burn. We shall try and spring the trap before they are ready." The General glared out at the stars. Commander Tiegh saluted and returned to the center of the War Room.

"Go to Battle Status One. Have all ships engage maximum burn at the command. We must isolate the Timelord device from the Rutan fleet. Destroy as many of the enemy as possible, but not at the expensive of the prime objective." Commander Tiegh paused as his instructions were relayed throughout the battle fleet. The General was tacitly allowing him operational control. It was no doubt a lesson of some kind. In the heat of battle, General Strag would likely take control. For now he seemed content letting Tiegh command a Battle Fleet, however briefly. It was an honor and a duty. "For Sontar!" cried Tiegh. "Initiate burn."

The Sontaran fleet expended almost the last of its fuel reserves. Accelerating faster and faster. At this speed they would be upon the enemy within minutes. Yet even as they surged forward, the Rutans slowed. Their deceleration coinciding almost perfectly with the Sontaran burn.

"We've overshot them," Commander Tiegh said staring at the holo-projector in shock. General Strag turned away from the observation port and smiled.

"Impressive," he said. "The enemy has chosen where they will stand. We shall indulge them. Bring the fleet about and set combat speed. Launch all fighters. Let the battle be joined. For Sontar!" He brought his baton down sharply into his opposing hand. The crack echoed through out the War Room.

And battle was joined. For over a hundred thousand years the Rutan Host and Sontaran Warburg had made war. Both sides were well practiced in the ways of the enemy. Space was alight with meson cannon fire and photonic missiles. Over a thousand fighters danced in the black. Swerving and ducking through the asteroids and debris, they spat death at each other. It was wonderful.

The Sontarans outnumber their enemy. Their frigates and destroyers pincered the Rutans seeking to pin them down, while the gunships circled making strafing runs. Explosions lit up the black, as cannon fire met shields. General Strag watched through his observation port. His flagship was back with the other motherships and the remainder of the reserves. The Rutans were falling back, slowly but surely. Their battle line was folding in on itself. General Strag smiled. This is what he lived for, what all true Sontarans lived for.

"Send Commander Stor," he ordered without looking back. He trusted his commanders to perform their function. No need to micromanage every detail of battle. He watched as the Linx-Class Cruiser, Stentor's Vengeance, surged forward. Its destroyer escort following. Commander Stor would secure the Timelord device or die in the attempt.

Commander Tiegh watched the holo-projector closely. Barking orders and keeping the fleet in formation. Stor was trying to force his way through the Rutan defense and they were parting before him. The Rutans were falling back, adopting increasingly defensive positions around the Timelord artifact. Drawing the Sontarans closer. Now that the deception was no longer necessary, the jamming signal had ceased. The Timelord artifact was visible in its true shape. It was dark and menacing, clearly a weapon. It looked almost organic, as if it had been grown not built.

As Commander Tiegh watched, the Stentor's Vengeance broke through the Rutan lines, and suddenly as if by prearranged signal, the Rutans disengaged and began powering up their FTL drives.

"They're preparing to retreat," Tiegh said astonished.

"No," General Strag corrected marching towards the hub of the War Room. "They're preparing to deploy the weapon." Even as he spoke, the Rutan fleet accelerated away, leaving the Sontarans alone in the path of the device. The front of the Timelord device began to glow and the space in front of it began to twist and distort. "All vessels target the weapon," said General Strag. "Disable, do not destroy!"

Cannon fire and photonic missiles impacted uselessly on the Timelord hull. It had been designed for a larger war. An anomaly formed in front of it, growing rapidly. Space ruptured as a tiny hole in the universe formed. Anti-light poured out. Darker than dark, it had passed from white through black and out the other side. The radius of the anomaly expanded rapidly striking a destroyed and sending it reeling, half of the ship no longer existing.

"Weapons have no effect, sir."

"So I see. All ships fall back. Retreat! We'll return to collect it before the Rutans." But the General's orders could not be obeyed. The fleet strained its engines futilely. The tear in the fabric of the universe was drawing them down inexorably. "Saturation strike," the General roared. "Destroy it now!" As before the Sontaran arsenal failed to scratch the surface. As the fleet neared the event horizon, a gunship broke formation.

"It's set on ramming speed," Commander Tiegh reported. "Should I order it back?"

"No. Their sacrifice will be noted." The War Room watched in silence as the gunship collided with the Timelord device at full speed. They died a fiery death together, but it was too late. A wave of anti-light engulfed the 5th Sontaran Battle Fleet, and when it faded nothing remained. No fleet, no anomaly, only a small debris field lingered for the Rutans to find. It was as if the Sontaran fleet had never existed.

Outskirts of Drazi Space—2238

There was an explosion that wasn't an explosion, a fleet where there hadn't been a fleet. It did not arrive through a jump point or materialize in some fashion. One moment it wasn't, and the next moment it was as if it had always been. The Great Machine of Epsilon 3 might have been able to detect the arrival, but its operator's attention was focused elsewhere. The squabbling First Ones were too busy watching each other to notice, but in a cave deep beneath Z'ha'dum the oldest of the old noticed and pondered.

The lights were dim in the War Room and damaged consoles burned brightly. General Strag did not help the Commander to his feet. Tiegh would not have appreciated the effort.

"We survive," Commander Tiegh noted. He kept his voice level, hiding the pain.

"Yes," General Strag agreed glaring out the observation port. Stars twinkled, more stars than there should have been out by the Rim. "But where are we?"